Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Longevity of Religious Orders

The Carmelite Order has been reformed several times, most famously by two Spanish saints during the Counter-Reformation. The Minorites have been reformed more often than that. Their peers, the Dominicans, have needed attention over the years, but less. The Benedictines have had less explicit reform, but have been indirectly revitalized by other new communities follow a more severe interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict. And then there are the Jesuits....

At what point is a religious order or community necessary? When the conditions for its inception by the Church fade, ought the order fade, too? 

Years ago a friend of mine was in novitiate for the Dominicans in the eastern province of the United States. A mutual acquaintance asked why they were called the Order of Preachers. I explained that this eponym is in fact their proper name. During the Middle Ages one had to be licensed by the local bishop to preach in a church and sermons were quite rare. The Dominicans received their permission directly from the pope, which permitted these educated, ambulatory priests to oppose the Cathar heresy with great militancy. He asked if all priests can preach now. Yes, I said. Are there Cathars anymore? No, I said. Then what do they do?

Saint Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus along similar lines, using his own unique skills to service the Church in combat against the reigning heresy of the day. Yet, there are still protestants and anti-Christian governments. Does this necessitate the aggressive orthodoxy and militant attitude of the Society of Jesus in our age?

One might be tempted to compared religious orders to government bureaucracies, seeing them as self-confirming institutions that perpetuate their own relevance long after their immediate need has passed. The Dominicans and the Social Security program have some superficial parallels.

It would be wrong, however, not to consider the orders in their integrity and only look at God's blessing of their work in historical context. Eastern Christianity has comparatively few religious orders, just freestanding communities following certain sets of traditions. Most monks, in one way or another, follow the ways of Saint Basil: work eight hours, pray eight hours, sleep eight hours. A few monasteries have the Hesychast emphasis that pervaded what Taft called the "final synthesis" of Greek Christianity before the fall of Byzantium. In the deserts of Egypt a monastery follows the way of Saint Anthony in conjunction with the cave-dwelling anchorites. There is no strict "rule", no international conference of delegates answering to a superior general, and no dicastery for religious life. They also did not come into existence after an outbreak of heresy, although the Athonite communities rose to prominence after the Hesychast movement. There is something inherently durable in the manner of Christian life found in these communities that is not bound up in the personalities of their founders

The religious communities which have had the least "reform" or on-going maintenance are the ones least related to the personalities of their founders. Biographical details and acts of Saint Benedict survive through Gregory the Great and the monastic traditions, although little about the man's temperament and personality survive. A monk following the rule looks to Benedict as his father, but not necessarily his model. The Divine Office and the weekly recitation of the 150 psalms is his model, to disappear into work, be it manual or spiritual work. Ora et labora could well be Orare est laborare for a Benedictine. It is an ideal to diminish the place of the individual and, through prayer and labor, augment the place of Christ.

Our Dominicans have been slightly less durable than the Benedictines, if only because of their necessary proximity to "the world." Though no longer uniquely situated as great preacher among few, their ubiquity, academic affiliations, and penchant for study have elongated their place in the Church long after the death of Saint Dominic de Guzmán. The Dominicans have produced such varied saints as Catherine of Sienna, Martin de Porres, Vincent Ferrer, and the Common Doctor, each a saint in their own right and an instrument of God's grace in the world.

Perhaps less apparent in these excellent, enduring qualities are the Minorites, the friars who are supposed to live the life of Saint Francis. It does not aid the Minorites, in their three iterations, that for two centuries our society has re-imagined Francis as a proto-socialist, tree-hugging, animal-loving, limp-wristed vagrant. A man so uniquely blessed by God, so idiosyncratic in his ways could only help attract followers who desired the same holiness Francis possessed, but there was only one Francis. Even in the Saint's own lifetime his order was growing in scope far beyond the narrow mendicant brotherhood he initially envisaged. The Minorites have produced saints, surely, and many lesser known friars and sisters who has striven to life the Gospel with the unguarded simplicity Francis did, but it has also produced a multitude of ebullient cretins who seek to replicate a perceived quietism and spontaneity wrongly attributed to Francis. At the cost of this aesthetic comes the integrity of the liturgy and the body of doctrine, the two things most dear to living Christian life; someone called Dan Horan is, in some deranged way, the heir to the Fraticelli. The Franciscans of the Immaculate may have prefaced a revival of genuine Franciscan life, but that endeavor proved too much for our day.

Orders and communities hopefully receive the blessing of Our Lord in their own time and continue to act as a blessing on the Church in our time. The most successful of these are built on eternal needs and the received wisdom of the Church's liturgy and discipline. Sometimes a charism is simply no longer needed. Sometimes it matures into a more lasting contribution. And sometimes it festers.

I know you're all wondering: should the Society of Jesus be suppressed? Clement XIV may have been wrong in 1773, but the world would have been better off if they stayed dead.


  1. In my earlier years after returning to the Church I was introduced to a Spanish group of young men who were founded by rejected Jesuit novices for being too "conservative" and helped along by an elderly Jesuit priest.

  2. The Cathars didn't disappear. They are still around.They are called globalists now.

  3. On your central question, whether the Jesuits should be suppressed - which I take to be because you don’t approve of perhaps many Jesuits and one Jesuit in particular – I find myself thinking your suggestion that orders should fade when the conditions of their reception fade a very pertinent one. It seems at first glance to be self-evident but that some orders in such a condition manage to maintain ground may be because they re-invent themselves. Then the question might be, are they the same order as the original? I think they ought to be allowed a chance to do that.

    On a single remark you made about the minorities and the way Francis is portrayed by secular fashion, I want to make some protest. Whilst I acknowledge that it is anachronistic to call Francis of Assisi a “proto-socialist” or a ‘tree-hugging’ animal lover, which I think is in part because of the modern pejorative associations these terms mean for certain conservatives, there seems to be no doubt that Francis religiously loved animals. Father Andrew Linzey, in his “Animal Theology”, reminds us that St Bonaventure said of St Francis ‘that when he considered the primordial source of all things, he was filled with even more abundant piety calling creatures no matter how small by the name of brother and sister because he knew that they had the same source as himself.’ [p.12] Fr Linzey criticises the influence of Aquinas on Christian theology and ethos on this matter, and deplores that even liberation theologians like Gutierrez and Boff remain, like Aquinas and the predominant tradition, anthropocentric in a sense that Francis was not.

    It seems also true that Francis believed in equality of dignity in a practical way, not in any disingenuous way that would have us believe and accept that because the poor are always with us, it is good that people have poverty imposed on them. Writing on a site linked to the Dominican Friars of the Province of St Albert the Great, a Mr Thomas B Stratman says that his view about obedience and stewardship and authority so formed the political organisation of his order that no-one was ever to be a prior but a minister (and therefore servant). He clearly adopted, like so many orders do, a kind of communism that had nothing to do with what is usually linked to that term, namely Stalinism or its Chinese equivalent, and which has nothing to do with equality.

    My conclusion is that wherever else he sits, I do not think Francis can be used as a poster boy for – permit my tautologism - right wing traditionalists.

    1. Have you read Fr Augustine Thompson's book on Francis?

    2. Hi Anacharsis, just read your question. No, I haven't but have just listened to him at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRbtwoKrD0I - I found it interesting and informative, thank you.

  4. Clement XIV may have been wrong in 1773, but the world would have been better off if they stayed dead.

    I now think that Clement acted as he did for the wrong reasons, but I incline to think that it was a desirable end. The corruption of the Jesuits had not reached the post-Teilhardian deformities we know today, but corruption there was, just the same. And some of it was inherent, I fear, in the Jesuit model as originally constituted by St Ignatius, for reasons noted recently by Dr. John Lamont.

    I can't help but think of one passage in Patrick O'Brian's The Reverse of the Medal (set in 1813), in which a worried Captain Aubrey asks his best friend, the Catholic Stephen Maturin, about his illegitimate son's decision to pursue a priestly vocation:

    "…By the way, Stephen, those Fathers were not Jesuits, I suppose? I did not like to ask straight out."

    "Of course not, Jack. They were suppressed long ago. Clement XIV put them down in the seventies, and a very good day’s work he did. Sure, they have been trying to creep back on one legalistic pretext or another and I dare say they will soon make a sad nuisance of themselves again, turning out atheists from their schools by the score; but these gentlemen had nothing to do with them, near or far."

    1. Very true on all fronts.

      I wonder if the Jesuits, like the Franciscans, would have benefited from staying very small and not proliferating into a major religious order. Saint Ignatius' spirituality and model may well have worked for the soldier mentality of a missionary priest in isolation. In a major community, however, it became something else.

    2. The witness of St. Edmund Campion, all by itself, would argue that the Jesuits must have had *some* value.

      But he would be one more example of "a missionary priest in isolation," wouldn't he? I think you're onto something here.